The Long Walk Back: Barrow’s Return to the Football League

Barrow-In-Furness, a remote Cumbrian town with a population of just over 50,000, has undergone a period of change and upheaval.

Following the decline of the shipbuilding industry in the latter half of the 20th Century, of which the town was heavily dependent on, they were forced to adapt, and is now home to the world’s second largest wind farm.

The Same can be said of the local team, Barrow A.F.C. who will start the 2020-2021 season in League Two, their first in the Football league for 48 years, after being unfairly voted out in 1972, and not entirely for footballing reasons.

Those 48 years have seen Barrow go through turmoil on and off the pitch, enduring administration, winding up orders, 6 promotions, 6 relegations, and 41 managers (soon to be 42 following Ian Evatt’s recent departure to Bolton).

2019-20 has seen Barrow top the National League table prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, with 70 points from 37 games, 4 ahead of their nearest rivals, and comfortably promoted using the points per game model.

These events are in stark contrast with those 48 years ago, which saw Barrow ejected from the Football League, their place given to Hereford United, under the flawed re election system.

Up until 1987, there was no promotion or relegation between the fourth and fifth tier with the bottom three clubs having to reapply for their football league status, while the teams from the division below could apply to enter the league.

This saw Barrow voted out, despite finishing 5 points clear of Stockport and 8 points ahead of Crewe, who both remained, and replaced by a Hereford side that had finished runners up to Chelmsford City in the Southern League.

The two main reasons given were Hereford’s victory over Newcastle, one of the all-time great FA Cup shocks, and their geographic isolation, in other words, Barrow were voted out of the football league, because it was difficult to get to.

This also exposes a wider trend, between 1958 when the Fourth Division was created, and 1986 when relegation was introduced. Only 5 teams failed to retain their place. All five clubs represented Northern, working class towns (Gateshead, Bradford, Barrow, Workington and Stockport) and were replaced by teams located further South. Though Liverpool, Man United and Leeds enjoyed periods of great success in the 1960s and 1970s, the same can’t always be said of Northern towns and cities further down the football pyramid. 

Throughout the rest of the 1970s and early 80s, Barrow struggled, with scarce resources even by non-league standards, a series of poor league finishes culminated in relegation to footballs’ 6th tier.

Though the club enjoyed a brief revival, gaining promotion to the newly formed Conference in 1989,and winning the FA Trophy in 1990, beating Leek Town at Wembley, more hardship and controversy was soon to follow.

The club was unable to build on these successes, falling back into the Northern Premier League in 1992, before being bought by Steven Vaughan in 1995. The now discredited former owner of Barrow and Chester, initially invested in the playing squad, resulting in a successful promotion back into the Conference in 1998.

However he withdrew his support in 1998, following a money laundering investigation, with it later transpiring Vaughan had sold the clubs’ Holker Street ground to a company in which he had an interest.

Faced with liquidation, Barrow were ejected from the Conference, despite not being relegated. Though they remained in administration for the next few years, the club were able to survive in the Northern Premier League, and were ultimately  able to resolve the legal disputes surrounding the ground’s ownership in 2002, buying it back from the liquidator. 

The subsequent period saw stability off the pitch, as well as some success on it, with cup runs, and a further FA Trophy success in 2010, beating Stevenage Borough.

In 2014, Barrow were bought again, this time by Dallas businessman Paul Casson, who saw the club promoted from the Conference North at the end of the 2014-2015 season. The next few seasons saw the club establish themselves in the National League, before Casson sold the club to a local business consortium.

Under new ownership, this year’s promotion push ended a wait spanning five decades for a return to the Football League.

A new generation of supporters will soon see their team play in the fourth tier, most for the first time in their lives, and can look forward to a bright future.

While the EFL has handled the Covid-19 fallout poorly, with the lower leagues in crisis, Barrow’s return can be seen as one of the few positives, with a footballing injustice finally corrected, after almost 50 years. 

 

About the author

I'm 23, and from the Wirral. My interests are mainly in football and history.

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